In an iPhone video of a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal made in early March, Calvin Royal III stands in a corner of an American Ballet Theatre studio, arms reaching far into space, chin slightly raised in welcoming anticipation. There is such warmth and openness in his stance, you can understand why Juliet would want to hurl herself halfway across the stage into his arms. He looks directly into the eyes of his partner, Cassandra Trenary, and then lowers her into a swoon.
"He approaches everything with a sincerity that I love," Trenary says later. "No matter what he dances, he is always authentically himself."
Royal and Trenary were meant to make their debuts in the ballet on April 4, in Abu Dhabi. The following month, he was scheduled to perform as Romeo to Misty Copeland's Juliet, and make his Albrecht debut, at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House. But then the COVID-19 crisis hit, bringing the entire world to a halt and putting all premieres on an indefinite hold.
Royal—tall, lanky, with a silken, elegant way of moving and a gentle and open stage manner—would seem ideally suited to play Romeo. There is a quiet persuasiveness to his dancing. He doesn't show off. Instead, he imbues each movement with an aura of beauty and lyricism. As Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of the company, puts it, "Calvin has an inner light."
Romeo is a role Royal has craved since he began to study dance. At times, though, he has wondered whether
the opportunity would ever arrive. Royal wasn't a prodigy. His ascent has been gradual, even painstaking at times. You get the feeling he has earned every role, every opportunity through determination and the integrity of his dancing, but without ever losing that grace that makes him such a joy to watch onstage. He is hungry without being driven by ambition.
His quietly serious way of working has been one of the constants of his career. "Slow and steady, every day a little bit better, and absolutely consistent," Raymond Lukens, who taught him at the ABT-affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says of his approach.
Royal didn't get his start in ballet until age 14, at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. Before that, he had been a serious piano student. It was his grandmother Linda, a social worker and a lover of classical music, opera and dance, who first encouraged his artistic tendencies. When he was 10, she bought him a Yamaha electric keyboard for Christmas. "I'll never forget it," she says. "He called me one Sunday morning and said, 'I want you to listen to something.' " On the other end of the line, he started to play Beethoven's Für Elise. He had learned it by ear.
Royal excelled at his piano studies, but also loved to move. For a few years, he took part in a local production called The Chocolate Nutcracker, which included hip hop, West African and other styles of dance. One of his fellow participants encouraged him to audition for the high school dance program. Without ever having taken a formal dance class, he was accepted.
Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT
There was so much to learn, he sometimes felt he might never catch up. "I think it intrigued him that ballet took so much effort," says Suzanne Pomerantzeff, his main teacher at Pinellas. The intellectual challenge drew him in as much as the physical.
That focus carried him through some difficult times at home. In his sophomore year, he injured his back in a car accident and had to sit out ballet classes for several months, excruciating given he had only just begun to make progress. He would take notes on the side, "visualizing dance in my mind," as he puts it. Dance became a lifeline, a source of steadiness and hope.
In his junior year, he competed in Youth America Grand Prix, where he was spotted by Lukens and Franco De Vita, of the JKO School. "I was immediately struck by his elegance, his musicality and his coordination," remembers De Vita, who offered him a scholarship.
After a year in the school and two and a half in ABT II (now the ABT Studio Company), he got into the main company, initially as an apprentice, at 21. He was still getting his technique where he wanted it to be—quick footwork and beats were a challenge for his long, lithe physique. ("I wanted to move like those little guys," he says, "but it wasn't easy with these legs.")
But he also wondered whether he fit the typical mold of a principal dancer at the company. "It was only when I came to New York that I started to become more aware of race in ballet," says Royal. In Florida, his ballet classes had been mixed. In New York City, less so. When he first joined ABT II, he overheard other dancers from the company making snide comments about a fellow African-American dancer there. "Oh, well, I guess they needed a black girl,' " he heard one of them say.
He began to wonder whether he might never be given the chance to prove himself as a leading man by McKenzie and the rest of the artistic staff. "Will they see me as Romeo or Albrecht? Not only because I'm black, but also because I'm gay?"
At the time, he says, the company culture was different: "There was this sense of machismo, and this idea that the guys had to look sort of like football players." Ethan Stiefel, José Manuel Carreño and other powerhouses in that vein were company stars. Just a few years earlier, in 2003, the company had put out a video, Born to Be Wild, that depicted its male dancers as testosterone-driven guys who rode motorcycles and posed as matadors.
Since that time, much has changed. Fewer international stars come through ABT; a new generation of home-bred principals has risen to the top, and they are anything but cookie-cutter. (Only one, however, is black: Misty Copeland.) Rigid notions about what Romeo or Siegfried should look like have finally begun to relax, to the benefit of the dancers.
In Serenade After Plato's Symposium
Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT
Royal's particular qualities have been recognized and put to artistic use, especially by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence. In 2013, Ratmansky gave him a major role in his evening-length Shostakovich Trilogy. Three years later, he created an extra-ordinary, melancholy solo for him in Serenade after Plato's Symposium. The solo showcased the gracefulness of Royal's port de bras, the inwardness of his dancing, and his capacity to communicate thought and emotion through movement. Others have danced it, but none with the same poetry.
Royal also leads one of the three debut casts of Ratmansky's newest ballet epic, Of Love and Rage, originally scheduled to have its New York premiere during the company's spring season at the Met. That too will have to wait, for now.
The poetry in Royal's dancing is related to his deep, subtle musicality; music flows through him. It's not surprising that his partner, ABT pianist Jacek Mysinski, is a musician. Their work spills over into their downtime; Mysinski practices at home, and they talk about the ballets in the rep. When Mysinski is playing from the pit during a performance, Royal can feel his presence, he says: "It's almost like having him at my side, almost like a partner."
Royal was promoted to soloist in 2017, nearly seven years after joining. At some point along the way, he admits, he had begun to spin his wheels. "I got my hopes up and then I got my hopes shattered. I even started thinking about exploring other options, maybe another company or something completely different."
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
What kept him going, he explains, were outside projects that fueled his creativity and imagination, as well as his confidence. He danced for several seasons with Daniil Simkin's touring group Intensio. And, perhaps most meaningfully, he became a repeat visitor to Damian Woetzel's yearly Vail Dance Festival in the Rockies, where he got to dance a completely new repertory: works by Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, new creations by Pam Tanowitz and others.
"Year after year, he has become ever more himself onstage," says Woetzel, who has become an important mentor. "His level of comfort in everything he does has become expansive." This year, he selected Royal to be the festival's artist in residence, leading workshops, performing in various premieres and taking part in initiatives related to the challenges boys face in ballet. "I see a real leadership quality in Calvin," says Woetzel.
Last summer at Vail, Royal danced excerpts from Apollo, one of the pinnacles of the male repertoire. A few months later, McKenzie asked him to make his debut in the full piece in New York, with ABT. It was a remarkable moment—he looked completely at home in the role of a young god. He may have to wait a little longer for his debut as Romeo, but his time, it seems, has finally come.